Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"My words are nearly always an offense.
I don't know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can't say I see how.
- Again, we see that this man is seriously frustrated. He complains that almost everything he says offends his wife, making it so that he doesn't know how to talk to her.
- This seems to pin the problem with the woman; it's her fault that she's offended by what he says, that she's so hard to please.
- Even though he's complaining about how hard it is to please the woman, he seems to suggest that he could be taught how to speak to her in a way that won't offend her.
- Yet, as soon as he suggests this, he takes it back, saying that he can't see how he could be taught. He tries to have an open mind, saying that he would be receptive to being taught, but really, he doesn't think it's feasible.
- You've probably figured this out by now, but this marriage is seriously complicated.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I'd bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you're a-mind to name.
Though I don't like such things 'twixt those that love.
Two that don't love can't live together without them.
But two that do can't live together with them."
- Now we're really getting into it. Ol' hubby's gathering steam.
- The man continues his complaints, saying that he has trouble communicating with not only her, but with all women. Apparently, he has to sacrifice a little manliness if he wants to get through to the ladies.
- But he's not without solutions.
- He's so frustrated that he's offending her all the time that he suggests he'll even promise to (metaphorically speaking) "keep hands off," or not talk about, subjects that she's "a-mind to name," which are basically the ones she doesn't want him to talk about.
- Again, though, as soon as he's suggested this compromise, he takes it back. He says that he doesn't like arrangements like that "'twixt," or between, people who love each other. Interesting that he would use the word "love," because we haven't seen too much of it in this poem.
- See, he doesn't like agreeing to not talk about sore subjects because this is a method that people who don't love each other rely on. But people who do love each other shouldn't.
- By having agreements in place not to talk about certain subjects, this couple would put themselves into the man's definition of two people who don't love each other.
- Even though it was his idea for them to establish such a system in the first place, he seems uncomfortable about actually using it. You might see this as his attempting to seem like he'd be willing to compromise even though he's really not.
- As you read, think about which category you'd put this couple into.
- Do you think they're in love?
She moved the latch a little. "Don't—don't go.
Don't carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it's something human.
Let me into your grief. I'm not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
- The woman is just not havin' it. Her response to his words is to fiddle with the latch on the door some more, proving him right—nothing he can say will please her.
- As she's moving the latch, still showing that she wants to leave (but without actually leaving), he says, repeating the word "don't," that she shouldn't go. Is this a plea or a command?
- Whatever it is, he also tells her not to carry it—her grief—to someone else. He wants her to tell him about it "if it's something human." This is a whammy of a phrase, which really shows his frustration.
- Think back to lines 52-53, when he said that men have to give up being wholly men to get along with women. Add line 61 to that, and it makes it seem as though he thinks women—or at least this woman—are practically from another species. It's not technically possible for her to have a thought that's not human, since she certainly is a human.
- But he seems to think that if she doesn't feel comfortable telling it to him, then it must not even be human. Or at least it's not something he can relate to as a man.
- He wants to be let into her grief, as if it's an exclusive club, which, judging by her reactions, it seems like it kind of is. She's hardly responded to him at all for most of the poem.
- He claims that he's like other people, and we might assume he's referring to people with whom she feels comfortable talking about her grief. It seems like this guy's feeling really excluded.
- He asks her to give him his chance, which makes us wonder if she hasn't tried to talk to him about her grief before at all. Maybe, from the start, she preferred to go to other people to talk it out.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You'd think his memory might be satisfied— —"
- After he has pleaded with her to give him a chance, he doesn't stop talking and allow her to try to talk to him. Instead, he keeps plowing forward, and says that he thinks she overdoes it, referring to her grief.
- But he's no fool, and he knows that's not going to go over well. So he treads carefully, hedging his statement with words like "though" and "a little."
- Then, the caution in his words is thrown to the wind. The tone of line 66 is downright condescending. He makes it seem like she's putting on a show of grieving, just because that's how she was brought up.
- Calling the loss a "mother-loss" makes it seem as if it's a generalized thing that happens to every mother. But it also separates that loss from whatever feelings he's experiencing about the tragedy. This isn't a father-loss, in other words.
- And here comes his real beef with the whole situation. He doesn't understand why his wife is so inconsolable "in the face of love." In other words, her grief shouldn't be so extreme when the woman has a man who loves her. Love and grief, going by this phrase, should not and cannot co-exist for this character.
- To top it off, he says that the memory of the child, whom we now know was their first child, and male, should be satisfied. The idea here is that the child's memory is only worth a finite amount of pain. And she's reached the quota.
- Think back to how this whole conversation started—with him seeing her pausing to look out the window. According to him, she shouldn't even be bothered by the sight of her first child's grave, because she has grieved enough already.
- Yeah, it's not exactly the most understanding and supportive stance a husband can take. And it probably isn't winning him any points with wifey.